What does the Conservative Party leadership contest mean for the built environment?

The Conservative Party leadership contest has gone at lighting speed over the last two weeks, whittling those vying to replace Boris Johnson as leader and Prime Minister from 11 candidates, to leave Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to face the party membership. Only one of them can claim the top prize of becoming the 78th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. So, what could the new Conservative leader mean for the built environment?

Levelling up, which was the flagship of Boris Johnson’s Premiership, turned into a taboo topic during the knock-out rounds of the leadership race. However, if the next leader of the party wants to hold onto those Red Wall seats won by Johnson, they will have to add substance to Boris’ rhetoric on the subject and achieve visible results to levelling up. Early in the race Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham declared that “levelling up will be dead” if Mr Sunak was to emerge victorious. This cynicism may be misplaced, with Sunak coming out in full support of levelling up, pledging to maintain a Cabinet-level Secretary of State for Levelling Up and to continue Johnson’s programme. This has won him the backing of Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen and a number of Red Wall MPs. At the first head-to-head debate on Monday night, Rishi pledged to focus on the regeneration of town centres, upskilling young people in communities and tax cuts on business investment, in order to support levelling up across those communities who need it most.

Ms Truss, however, appears to have a different idea about how to approach levelling up. She has pledged support for “levelling up… in a Conservative way”, commenting in the Telegraph that she believes centralised targets are a “Labour approach”, and instead coming out in favour of amending levelling up legislation to include new, low tax, “investment and building zones”. Liz doubled down on this rhetoric in last night’s debate, adding her commitment to freeports and improving school performances to her economic levelling up plan.  Levelling up was already a confusing ‘buzzword’ that was regularly thrown around, and the rhetoric used by both Sunak and Truss has not done anything to give clarity to its meaning.

For several years now, housing, specifically the affordability and access to it, has been an important policy focus within the built environment. In the 2019 General Election Conservative Manifesto, the Government set out ambitious targets of building a million more homes this parliament and 300,000 homes a year by the middle of the decade. How has this translated into the current leadership contest?

Liz Truss has been very vocal on her housing stance, having previously called for “a million homes” to be built on Green Belt land outside London and other cities in order to “allow the under 40s to be able to own their own homes”. She has also previously expressed a desire for villages to be able expand by “four or five houses a year without having to go through the planning system” so that local people will be able to continue to afford to live locally. Ms Truss recently even went so far as to label the housing targets set by the government as “Stalinist”, believing that the best way to encourage home building is through tax and regulatory incentives for private firms within “opportunity zones”.

Mr Sunak, as Chancellor, announced an £11.5bn fund to build up to 180,000 affordable homes, which included £1.8bn to allow 1,500 hectares of brownfield land to be used for housing. He has also pledged to speed up building on brownfield sites, and in cities, as well suggesting he wants to scale back government funding for affordable housing, replacing it with incentives for developers to build affordable homes.  Like levelling up, housing is sure to become a dominant topic of debate among the final two contenders once they hit the road and face the public.

Most of the debate amongst MPs in the lead up to the membership ballot to decide the next leader and Prime Minister has been focused on tax and public spending, immigration and the culture wars, with little mention of the built environment. This does not mean however, that the sector is destined to fall to the wayside. Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will have to appeal to not only the Conservative Party members, but to the electorate more generally with just 2 years until the next general election. This means they will have to focus on the issues that the public care about which includes levelling up, new homes and infrastructure, as well as issues such as sustainability. It will be interesting to watch how the next few weeks of the leadership contest unfold and how the Conservative membership choose to shape the future of the built environment.

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